Did you ever find your self in a mess and wonder how you got there? There’s no guarantee your decisions are always going to be good ones. Too much is unpredictable.
However, many of us have had the experience of looking back on a situation and thinking “I should have known better. The warning signs were all there.”
Here are 8 reasons smart people make dumb decisions. As you think about a time you ignored the signals, was it for any of these reasons?
Understanding why you ignored the warning signs can help you avoid repeating mistakes.
A major cause of poor decisions comes from making them a vacuum without having important information. Sometimes people don’t solicit input because they are over-confident and don’t believe others have anything worthwhile to add. Other times it’s because they believe they are supposed to be strong and have all the answers and think soliciting input makes them look weak. People in leadership roles are particularly vulnerable to finding themselves isolated from a huge source of important information – the people in their organization.
2. Lack of feedback
You don’t know what you don’t know. You need feedback to understand the impact of your actions. Just like it’s a good idea to take a look in a mirror occasionally to make sure the back of your hair is combed and you don’t have spinach on your teeth, you need to find out what you cannot see on your own. Feedback is the mirror that reflects your actions. Consider it a gift or you may find people avoid giving it to you.
3. External pressures
External pressure from others can cause people to make a decision to please someone and ignore their own best interest – for example the person who wanted to be an artist but who became a doctor to please her parents. Time pressure can also cause people to make a quick decision without thinking through the long-term consequences.
Self-doubt creates an over-reliance on other’s opinions and prevents you from trusting your own judgment. It can immobilize you from making a decision. Fear can cause you to make a decision that you know deep inside is not the best decision for you.
5. Irrational beliefs
Sometimes people move ahead with a decision they desperately want even though the warning signs are telling them not to. Sometimes they ignore the warning signs because they believe they can make it work through sheer willpower. Sometimes it’s a matter of magical thinking – “it will work out because I want it to work out.”
6. Lack of self-awareness
Lack of reflection can lead to random action. Remember the adage, “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.” Take time for reflection and introspection to identify your core values. Knowing where you stand and what’s most important to you allows you to make decisions that consciously support what you hold most dearly.
7. Acting out
It’s important to acknowledge your feelings. Burying them is not healthy and can actually make you physically ill. However, recognizing how you feel does not mean you need to take action. Humans have a highly developed brain with a prefrontal cortex that allows us to override our animal instincts and keep from acting out our reactivity. Next time you get an email that annoys you, pause before you reply and give your prefrontal cortex an opportunity to kick into gear.
8. Selective perception
Human relations expert Ken Macher says we often miss the signals because we filter them out. He explains selective perception as a tendency that once you have made a decision, to focus only on information that confirms what what you believe and to discount information that sheds new light. The effect of selective perception can be observed right now in the United States in the polarization around the current presidential election.
Great article Jesse!!! All excellent points. -Cynthia
Thanks Cynthia. Great to see you here!
George Santyana, (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) offered up this maxim which we can’t seem to integrate into our work and our political miasma. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It will take more than understanding you eight excellent reasons, right on target. Perhaps a faulty memory is another reason when we say, too late, “Oh yes, I remember now.” Bad timing!
“Not learning from the past” – great addition to the list. Thanks, Gary!
Excellent series of points on which to reflect either when we look back on past decisions or are about to make a decision. Very helpful! Thanks!
Thanks, Garry. Sometimes missing the signals is simply a one-time occurrence. But if there’s a pattern, it can be helpful to dig down to find the primary cause. And it’s always helpful before making a decision to pause and ask, “is there something I don’t know or see here?”
Great piece. One more I might add – sunk cost. Small bad decisions become bigger and bigger as one continues to pursue the same strategy. Often this decision to continue is based on an unwillingness to let go of the previous decisions already made.
Good addition, Noah. This is where you’ve invested so much, it’s too painful to let go. It can happen not only in a bad business decision, but also in your personal life, such as a bad marriage.
Another great post, Jesse. Totally agree with your points, including this one. Sometimes, facing the truth can be too painful so we minimise, ignore or make ‘dumb decisions’ and yet it is only the truth – no matter how painful – which ultimately sets us free. Really enjoys your posts. 🙂
Thanks for your addition, Jasbindar. I would add that the more we try to avoid pain by not facing the truth, the more it hurts when we finally do.
Your points on what makes smart people make dumb decisions are spot on. I would add the following: Lack of continued learning and growth. Constant learning helps us discern a better way to make better choices for the greater good.
Great addition, Jon. A learning orientation is the way out – it is what allows us to see the warning signals and also the signals of opportunity.
Jesse, what a great article and so timely. I just read an article yesterday sent by one of my colleagues that describes a phenomenon called “Normalization of Deviance”. It was written by Charlie Precourt for EAA Sport Aviation Magazine (Vol. 65, No 7 July 2016) about the space shuttle disasters caused by decisions made due to complacency to conditions that “Sometimes or always” happen. He describes NASA as having an organizational culture that evolved to accept danger signals as normal and did not react to clear signs that the Challenger and Columbia shuttles were doomed to fail. Diane Vaughan had originally explored this concept in her book “The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA.” Though it is written for the aviation industry and pilots, it is a lesson for all Managers no matter what business they are in. It, like your article, alerts us to decisions we make as a result of the culture we have become accustom to. Thanks again for this insightful post.
Thanks so much for sharing the information and references and the effect of the NASA culture, Woody. Very relevant! I discussed the Challenger disaster in my post Why Good Teams Make Bad Decisions, pointing out that that information about the engineer’s concerns for the O-rings was not adequately passed up the chain of command to the decision makers. Not having access to the right information can be a deadly issue.
Woody, so true! The best presentation on Normalization of Deviance I have seen is Astronaut Mike Mullane’s treatment of the subject. He had 4 YouTube videos up for a while, but they’re gone. If you ever get a chance to see him, do it! N of D also occurs when we take a shortcut that worked, so we do it a few more times and we got away with it, until we didn’t.
Dave, Thanks for the kind words. By the way the videos are still up. Woody
Dave, don’t know if you’ve already read this, but if not, thought you might appreciate this article on how it applies to the fire service: http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2013/05/firefighter-safety–the-normalization-of-deviance.html
Clear thinking as usual, Jesse. You don’t have to work in an organization to use your suggestions!
Thanks for pointing that out, Carolyn. These issues affect us in all walks of life…
Great post Jesse! And great comments-I found myself wishing for a thumbs up feature on many of them.
I’ve also witnessed really smart people making really bad decisions when they placed their complete trust in one advisor that was feeding them selective and twisted information that was intended to hide truth and manipulate the outcome. Listening only to one person or a tiny group of advisors can be as dangerous as having no advisors.
Great addition, Chery! It doesn’t look like isolation because you have some trusted advisors. But you are actually isolated by your advisors.
Great article as usual, Jesse! Very well summarized through the 8 points.
The “foot in the mouth” disease is one that many of us suffer from (your truly included).
I remember the time when I was presenting to a Leader. In this case, I felt that I had actually worked out every facet of the solution logically. What I had not done was get a feel of the leader’s views as well as challenges, which actually put a different spin on the solution in the meeting.
The net result was that I put both feet squarely in my mouth. Empathy towards the customer’s needs (in this case, my leader) plays an important role in making smart decisions (not sure if I am smart though 🙂 ) – it seems to be a combination of isolation and selective perception combined!
Great example and analysis, Sudhir. Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience and illuminating these points!
I am grateful for your insight
I have been a victim of making decisions that I later regret. But I also think that sometime when you have strong values and belief of what you want can also lead to that kind of decisions.
Knowing what you want and having strong values are important for making good decisions. We get into trouble when they are our only guiding source and we don’t have enough information to determine whether the decision will really lead to the result we desire.